I was thinking this morning of that old chestnut about “acting our age.” And of the British actress Rula Lenska and a television ad from the seventies that she did not make.
For the life of me I can’t think what product was presented in the ad I was remembering this morning… probably hair colour… because in the ad a woman speaks in a husky voice with an accent that in my mind sounds suspiciously like Rula Lenska. And she says coyly, “How old do you think I am?” And I always wanted to reply, “Who cares, Rula?” Except, as I said, it wasn’t Rula in the ad.
Let me explain. In the seventies, Rula Lenska appeared in a series of ads here in Canada and the U.S. for Alberto VO5 shampoo and conditioner. At the beginning of the ad she says: “I’m Rula Lenska.” But we none of us knew who the heck Rula Lenska was, which we thought made the ads hilarious. Then Johnny Carson added to that by asking one night in his monologue, “Who the hell is Rula Lenska?” and everyone laughed harder. Then Jane Curtin played her in a Saturday Night Live skit. So Rula ended up being famous here after all, just not for the right reasons. Poor Rula, and one imagines poor Alberto, must have regretted those ads with a passion.
But I’m digressing as I usually do. I didn’t want to talk about hair commercials, but about age. About why we’re so obsessed by our age. By how old we feel. Or how old we look. And by how old people might think we are. “How old do you think I am?” Seriously, “Who cares, Rula?”
That’s my sister above. She’s in her early seventies. And she recently went fishing for the first time since she was a kid.
My niece’s husband, Luc, is an avid fisherman and he volunteered to take her brook trout fishing. If you’re not familiar with brook trout fishing and with the Canadian bush, let me tell you that it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to make your way upstream, along a creek or brook, looking for the best pools that might hold trout. Be ready to crash through bushes, step over endless windfalls, sink into mud, and wade if the bank is impassable. And sometimes, when a bank collapses under you, you just slide right into the water. That happened to me a few years ago.
Brook trout fishing can be exhausting. Like a day-long step class. Remember step classes? And it can be frustrating. Your hook gets caught on bushes when you’re walking. Or when you’re casting. You have to struggle through the bushes to untangle it. Sometimes, depending on the season, it’s verrry buggy. And sometimes all that effort is for nothing.
But not the day Carolyn and Luc went fishing. They caught enough trout for Luc to fry up a lovely shore lunch on his camp stove. Yep, my sister had the full Canadian brook trout fishing experience. For the first time. At her age. Imagine!
My mum didn’t start haying with my step-father until she was in her seventies.
Mum went haying the first time because she was worried about Lloyd on the island in the heat of the day, doing everything himself. Where I grew up, farmers hay on a big island in the middle of the Saint John River. It’s flat and fertile and accessed by the farmer’s ferry which I used to help run as a teenager. When we were kids, Lloyd had my step-brother, and me, and lots of neighbourhood kids as helpers. But we’d all long since grown up and moved away.
So that first day, Mum went along to the island planning to sit in the shade and keep an eye on Lloyd, to exhort him to take a break, to remind him to drink water, and to lay out the lunch when the time came. But as it happened Lloyd gave her a quick tutorial on tractor driving. And despite the fact that she didn’t drive, she knew how but she’d always been too nervous, she took over the steering wheel while he stayed on the wagon and moved the hay around as it fell off the hay-loader into the wagon.
Mum said it was the best decision she ever made, to leave the housework undone that day and go over to the island to help Lloyd. She came home exhilarated. Proud of trying something new. And she continued as his driver and “main man” (as Lloyd put it) for years. Everyone was gobsmacked. Imagine. At her age!
So as I said above, I’ve been thinking this week of the idea of acting our age. And how my sister is not very good at it. And neither was Mum. But seriously, how is a seventy-something person supposed to act?
In a recent post about aging on Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age, Adrienne Wyper writes about something called “subjective age.” She explains the differences between chronological age, mental age, and physical age. And talks a bit about some of the research that explains the impact of our “subjective age,” or how old we feel, on our physical wellness. You can read the post yourself here, if you like.
According to Adrienne’s research, feeling younger can help us buffer the damaging effects of stress. Keeping us healthy longer.
But I don’t know how old I feel. Do you? And I don’t understand why it’s so important to be able to quantify how old I feel. Why do I have to put a number on it? Especially when the meaning of those numbers is always changing. Do I feel sixty? What does a sixty-year-old feel like? Do I feel fifty? When I was fifty, I didn’t feel much different than I had when I was in my thirties. In fact, I was probably in better physical condition at fifty than at thirty. I didn’t look as good. But I felt better. More confident and, as I said, more fit. So those numbers are kind of meaningless, aren’t they?
Not to mention the meaningless number that often follows perhaps the most stupid question ever posed: “How old do you think I am?”
We were talking about that question at lunch the other day. One friend related how an acquaintance had recently asked her, “How old do you think I am?” Gad. My friend was flummoxed. She knew she was expected to answer much younger than the person’s age, of which she wasn’t sure. Why else does someone ask that dreaded question? So she started with what she assumed was the person’s age, shaved off five years, and answered. Turns out she was bang on. Uh oh. Not the number the questioner was expecting. Ha. Serves her right for asking.
And please don’t get me started on how Martha Stewart was lauded recently for “looking so amazing” on the cover of Sports Illustrated in her swimsuit. At age eighty-one. Not to mention how she’s been lauded for continuing to expand her “billion dollar brand” and make more and more money, not slowing down in the least, if you believe the hype. I don’t understand why she should be lauded for continuing to do what she’s always done; she has a large and “loyal team” to help. Is continuing to expand one’s “brand” any more laudable than, say, taking up fishing or tractor-driving in your seventies?
Why is it that the media is so inclined to praise the older women who appear as if they have not changed, not slowed down, not altered their priorities, and probably most significant, not shown visible signs of aging? What’s wrong with changing, slowing down, starting down a new path, finding new and perhaps more rewarding paths? What’s wrong with looking older?
And then I read this article in The Daily Beast on the “internalized ageism” of the Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That. In a recent episode, Carrie attends an event to launch a magazine for women over sixty. She is gobsmacked to think that she might be considered as part of its target demographic. At the event, she recoils from the “women who use walking aids,” fearing that she might be considered as one of them. The article goes on to say that while the show depicts Carrie as ageist, in real life Sarah Jessica Parker shrugs off the industry pressure to resort to plastic surgery. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the fictional Carrie is so afraid of that number 6-0, when the real Sarah Jessica Parker seems so much more sanguine about her age.
You know, I think we get too bogged down in numbers. Why try to quantify how you feel by identifying a number when that number is so unquantifiable? If you see what I mean. Numbers are supposed to be objective, not subjective. And they are, in the sense that two and two makes four. But to say I feel fifty is totally subjective when my fifty might mean something different than your fifty.
It seems we’re so hell bent to not be our mothers or grandmothers. If you want to talk numbers, my mum looked pretty good at sixty-five, started driving a tractor in her seventies, and first learned to use a computer at eighty-four. She was no Martha Stewart. But seriously, did she want to be? At eighty-one, she was too busy reading and gardening to worry about expanding her “brand.” Ha.
That’s my friend Marina below. Fishing for the first time ever. Doing something that, until recently, she would have said was well out of her comfort zone. Trying something new. Something that, back in her thirties or even her forties, she would not have imagined doing. And having fun doing it. Acting her age and feeling like a kid again.
I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this post, my friends. As usual, I’m all over the place. Talking about aging. Asking questions with no hard and fast answers.
Maybe that’s the point. There are no hard and fast answers. Like Gloria Steinem said in her guest appearance on that recent episode of And Just Like That... “aging is the new frontier.”
And I guess we’re all pioneers in our own journey. I’m thinking that we need to stop worrying if we’re acting our age. And just get on with whatever pleases us.
So, I don’t know what my “subjective age” is. I don’t know if I feel my age. Because I don’t know what sixty-seven is supposed to feel like. I don’t know if I look my age. Or if I’m acting my age. Or what someone might say if I asked them “How old do you think I am?”
And I’m trying my best not to care.
P.S. I looked high and low across the internet this morning and could not find any ad in which Rula Lenska said “How old do you think I am?” I found lots of the old Alberto VO5 ads which start with “I’m Rula Lenska.” So I had to conclude that she did not, after all, ask that question in an ad. But who the heck did? It’s going to drive me nuts of I don’t figure that out. Any ideas?